It seems to be a recurring idea in science fiction that some industrial tools, especially mining tools, are extremely sturdy and reliable to the point that in certain combat situations where durability is the top priority they outshine even military grade weapons. This trope was seen in Dead Space, and one of the more recent well-known examples is Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2 where a mining ship with a laser drill shows great durability.

My question comes down to two points:

  1. Is the idea that mining tools are designed to be very durable grounded in reality at all, and if so what's the reason for it? Of course tools for hitting stuff will definitely need to be durable, but is there a reason that mining tools would be made to specifically prioritize durability while military equipments may not be? (e.g. military tools are meant to be easily replaceable for some reason)
  2. Whether or not the idea is grounded in reality, what kind of situations and combinations of factors (besides availability: assume both are equally accessible) that can be formulated in science fiction could lead to a case where a character chooses mining tools over weapons in combat?
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    $\begingroup$ The military's policy on equipping soldiers is spending the least amount of money per soldier possible while still keeping their survival and combat effectiveness up. Anyone who's ever been in the military will tell you that "military grade" doesn't mean much and in general military gear is often designed for ease of use, maintainence, and supply logistics, not durability. $\endgroup$ – Dragongeek Jan 20 at 13:25
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    $\begingroup$ Relevant: dw.com/en/… $\endgroup$ – Ruther Rendommeleigh Jan 20 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ Define mining equipments. The USSR is known for having used nukes as mining equipment. $\endgroup$ – Renan Jan 20 at 21:21
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    $\begingroup$ Uh, I'm not sure mining equipment outshines military equipment. Haven't seen GotG2 but in Dead Space I'm pretty sure you use mining equipment instead of military one is because...there is no military equipment. You only have access to mining equipment. It's also an excuse to use some non-traditional weapons while keeping up the spirit of "using whatever available to survive". Sure, mining tech might be useful for combat but I don't think I've seen it consistently shown as better than military equipment in fiction. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Jan 21 at 8:12
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    $\begingroup$ @user560822: FYI, at least in the U.S., almost none of the "military surplus" you buy at military surplus stores is actually military surplus; for the last few decades they've mostly sold knock-off stuff made specifically for the military surplus market. Beyond that, the existence of durable cloth products is hardly an indication that stuff like armor and ordinance is top of the line; the U.S. may have an aversion to troop deaths that leads to higher spending, but that is by no means the historical norm. $\endgroup$ – ShadowRanger Jan 22 at 0:14

15 Answers 15


Is the idea that mining tools are designed to be very durable grounded in reality at all, and if so what's the reason for it?*

Absolutely it is. I'm going to talk primarily about machinery here, and the key point is that in a working mine, the machinery works 24/7. The workers may trade shifts, but the trucks and the mining drills and everything else is expected to be able to run all day, every day, for years at a time with minimal maintenance because if one thing stops, usually it makes a lot of things stop and that costs the mine money. For mining equipment, reliability is THE most critical factor.

Military machinery, by contrast, is designed for performance. The extent to which durability and endurance are compromised for the sake of performance can vary a lot depending on the expected use though. Think about civilian versus military aircraft for a minute. Like mining gear, passenger aircraft run 24/7/365. Airlines want to own the fewest possible number of airframes to get the job done, so the ones they have are constantly in operation. Crews swap out, but the planes will be in continuous operation for weeks or even months between maintenance. Military combat aircraft aren't like that. They're designed to experience extremely demanding use for brief spurts, with lots of time for maintenance in between combat sorties. Modern fighter aircraft may require ten or fifteen hours of maintenance for each hour they spend in the air. The F-35 takes FIFTY.

It varies by nation too. As much as the German tanks of WW2 were lauded as having incredible performance (and they did), they were maintenance divas. Everything was designed to work as well as it possibly could, but that meant the Panzers (and ESPECIALLY the Tigers) broke down constantly and needed enormous amounts of attention from very highly trained crews to keep them running. The Russian T-34 by comparison was designed to be crewed and maintained by illiterate farmers who had never seen anything more sophisticated than a farm tractor. One on one a T-34 was far less capable than a Panther, but because it was easier to build and easier to maintain, the Russian army had six or seven T-34s for every Panther or Tiger the Germans could keep on the field.

You can look at the M16 versus the AK47 too. Although the issues were eventually addressed, the M16 was designed to be light and easy to carry. Reliability was not the most critical feature which is why the M16 has a mechanism that allows dirty air from the barrel back into the working mechanisms which makes them require much more diligent cleaning. The AK47 by comparison is much heavier for the same relative performance, but has looser tolerances and a design that makes it MUCH more difficult to jam, and fair easier to maintain.

TLDR: Durability and endurance is a primary design requirement for mining equipment. Military equipment frequently sacrifices those qualities for performance, with the expectation that there's going to be plenty of time for maintenance between fights.

Whether or not the idea is grounded in reality, what kind of situations and combinations of factors (besides availability: assume both are equally accessible) that can be formulated in science fiction could lead to a case where a character chooses mining tools over weapons in combat?

The only scenario where this makes any sense is if the people who made your mining gear are working with a MUCH higher technology level than the people who made the military equipment that's available to you. The Star Trek reboot was a good example of this, where a mining vessel is a lethal threat to fleets of warships because it has the advantage of a couple hundred years of technological development. A modern Cat D5 with a bit of field modification would be practically unstoppable on a WWI battlefield, for example.

But otherwise, no. Military gear is never going to be inferior in combat to mining gear in any realistic scenario. Mining gear might stand up to more PUNISHMENT, but it's not going to be a more effective WEAPON in any reasonable scenario.

  • $\begingroup$ All very true concepts, but this answer would be better if it included examples of military situations where civilian mining equipment could actually be applied to a greater advantage than military gear. AK47s and T-34s may be made more to civilians specs, but they are not hardware. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Jan 20 at 21:40
  • $\begingroup$ Another problem with the Panzers is that while they were more successful on the battlefield, with and average of 2:1 kills over every American Tank (that is a Panzer could kill two American Tanks for every Kill of a Panzer Tank) the Americans had a 5:1 production capacity meaning that for every Panzer replaced, the U.S. would gain a net of four more tanks to their war force. In the long run, there would always be a "third" American Tank to avenge his two fallen brothers... Plus two more... just in case. $\endgroup$ – hszmv Jan 22 at 20:13

No, not really.

Dead Space is a game about engineer stranded on a mining space-ship fighting off space-zombies. Primarily, mining and construction tools are what he has access to. Secondarily, space-zombies in DS are animated by space-magic emanated by space-artefacts, said space-magic makes them impossible to kill and keeps them going forever. Main character's only chance at respite is though dismemberment of space-zombies into space-chunks fine enough as to be rendered harmless to his space-armour clad self. He needs to put some space between different parts of space-zombies, if you will. Those factors have dual purpose of forcing him to use repurposed tools along with rendering many actual weapons, designed to kill entities animated by internal organs instead of space-magic, relatively inefficient because said weapons are unable to disrupt space-magic with same efficiency they disrupt internal organs. You can be space-sure that actual space-weapon space-designed for space-dismembering space-zombies would easily outperform space-engineer's space-makeshift space-weapons, not to even space-mention any space-weapons space-designed to space-disrupt space-magic itself. Space.

In scenarios not convoluted by space-magic there is no practical reason why mining or construction tools should be more effective weapons than weapons themselves. Killdozer might sound awesome, but at 47880.5 kg, the Komatsu D355A (model of a bulldozer used) is already close to typical weight of a Main Battle Tank, factor in makeshift steel/concrete armour it was fitted with and we are definitely looking at MBT weight class. In a fight between MBT and Killdozer odds are such that bet of 1\$ on MBT will get back 1\$. Would Marvin Heemeyer use MBT had he access to one? I bet he would, but that's the crux of the issue, he didn't. However he didn't need one as he didn't intend to fight proper military. He was planning on committing terrorism through property destruction, thus facing only civilians and police, to which his makeshift tank was well enough.

Sure, you can argue about durability and maintenance cost: contrary to popular belief military equipment breaks all the time and requires constant maintenance, similar ratios of mechanical failure, associated costs and delays would be unacceptable for any enterprise, but for armies around the world that's the price of operating equipment fulfilling conflicting requirements. As long as you are not actively being shot at, malfunction isn't that much of a problem, war is "Months of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror" after all while enterprises go to great lengths to eliminate idle time of pretty much everything, from employees to equipment. If reliability is a price of your tank being an effective tank, then so be it. Killdozer might cost less to run per unit of distance and require less maintenance but does it really matter if as a weapon it's only good for running over handicapped people and MBT with broken engine could destroy it from 8km away within 10 seconds of attaining visual contact?

All equipment is designed for some purpose, with some constraints and intended for certain operational parameters. Crucial difference is in what said purposes, constraints and operational parameters are, for military equipment it's "killing people with vaguely analogous equipment" and "keep operators alive", for mining or construction gear it's "maximising profit". Now, as recent issues with John Deere show, just whose profit is being maximised is entirely different matter...

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    $\begingroup$ + for space-sure! $\endgroup$ – Willk Jan 20 at 14:41
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    $\begingroup$ I think the discussion of the special nature of the space zombies is dead on (no pun intended). It is very unlikely to that there will be cases where mining tools are better than military tools for general military stuff. Presumably the military is aware of mining equipment and has selected not to use it. However, the cases we focus on in fiction are typically unusual by definition, and are usually highly constructed in such a way as to make the quick thinking hero able to use their environment in heroic ways. $\endgroup$ – Zwuwdz Jan 20 at 21:35
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    $\begingroup$ -1: This addresses general effectiveness, but overshadows the special cases and durability mentioned by OP. $\endgroup$ – Beefster Jan 20 at 23:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Beefster 1) There's only one special case: availability, and OP explicitly asks to ignore it. 2) I went into reliability using Tanks as examples. Tank engines and suspension require a whole freaking lot of maintenance (it goes so far as some engines being designed to be replaced in a field in less than an hour, so that engine can be overhauled while tank keeps... tanking), but that's the price of propelling 60 tonnes of composites at 60 km/h. $\endgroup$ – M i ech Jan 21 at 10:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Borgh He used threat of injury or death as well as large scale property destruction to make a political statement. This exhausts any reasonable definition of domestic terrorism. Whether he was justified in his method or not as well as whether you agree with him or not are entirely separate issues, issues entirely irrelevant to deciding if his actions count as terrorism or not. $\endgroup$ – M i ech Jan 22 at 23:13

Combat equipment has to travel long and fast. Take for example the difference between Light, Medium and heavy tanks.

Heavy tanks are far superior in armor and weapons to light and medium tanks, but due to the weight of its parts it becomes a nightmare to deploy to the battlefield because of its low speed and high fuel cost. Add to this the fact that their low manoeuvrability makes them easy targets for fast attackers like CAS bombers.

Mining equipment on the other hand won't be moving much by itself. Once it is in the mine it does its thing, no need to dodge bombers and if it has to move a great distance other vehicles would probably carry it to its destination.

Additionally, mining equipment are often at risk of cave ins and will have to be able to carry a large amount of weight to do their job properly. So there is logic in using mining equipment for combat when the goals lies closer to a form of static defense then offensive purposes.

Now for the reason why mining equipment might be preferable, I don't really think there is any. Military equipment will (often) be adjusted to the needs of the battlefield. So the only reason somebody would use mining equipment for combat would be desperation (but as you said they are both equally accessible so that won't be the case).

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    $\begingroup$ Addendum to your last point. There exists a grace period where a new threat arises that is better dealt with using existing mining equipment than existing military equipment, before the military re-works their equipment to suit the threat. That's the Dead Space scenario. mil-spec weapons in that game are woefully inadequate because they're meant for killing normal organisms like people. not horrifying space-magic monsters that need their limbs removed. $\endgroup$ – Ruadhan Jan 21 at 8:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Ruadhan in scenarios where the enemy is invulnerable or near invulnerable to to conventional means of disposal (Guns/Flamethrowers and so on) a large amount of physical force might do the trick..but don't forget it is still mining equipment and therefor probably slow and bulky making it less then ideal for combat other then a last resort until a militarized version of the equipment can be produced on mass. $\endgroup$ – A.bakker Jan 21 at 14:58
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    $\begingroup$ The question is why mining equipment should be slow and bulky in the first place. The answer to which is..why not? It doesn't need to be as portable, so add more powerful motors and heavier gearing so it can crunch tougher rocks. A military version has a different and much easier purpose, so it can be lighter and more agile, but sheer mass and chunky components lends a certain durability to a machine that a lighter and faster version would lack. $\endgroup$ – Ruadhan Jan 21 at 15:16

is there a reason that mining tools would be made to specifically prioritize durability while military equipments may not be?

Logistics costs. Mining is a commercial enterprise; if using tougher kit makes it easy to keep a site up and running with reduced repair and resupply costs, some spreadsheet wrangler is eventually going to point this out and things will be adjusted accordingly. Conversely, companies often cut corners when they can, because spending money eats into profits and no-one wants to do that.

Military actions aren't necessarily commercial in nature, and the primary goal is to keep your peeps alive in the face of people who'd rather they weren't, and to ensure that the other side's desire to die for their country is facilitated as quickly as possible. In that regard, there's scope for throwing money at a problem to keep a supply of less-than-indestructible gear flowing towards the front lines. Conversely, gear that can't survive harsh use and abuse in a huge range of environments under very trying circumstances isn't really fit for purpose, and if all your peeps get killed because the equipment you have them wasn't any good, your operation is going to fail and there's a small chance that heads of higher-ups will end up on spikes, and they definitely don't want that.

Whether or not the idea is grounded in reality, what kind of situations and combinations of factors (besides availability: assume both are equally accessible) that can be formulated in science fiction could lead to a case where a character chooses mining tools over weapons in combat?

Has your enemy remain in their current location for the past five hundred million years, at least? Are they made of rock? Have at em.

For everything else, only desparation will drive you to using unsuitable kit. Military explosives are much more easily deployed than mining explosives, especially at range and in a hurry. There are no mining guns. Even mining lasers, as and when such things even come to exist, will be very short range (and probably fixed range too, so don't get too close) because that's a far easier thing to build and the rock you're mining isn't going to run away or charge at you with murder in its eyes. Military equipment is designed be carried, by humans, for extended periods of time. Not to put too finer point on it; it is designed to kill humans and smash their toys, and do so efficiently and effectively. Mining gear? Not so much.

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    $\begingroup$ @Matthew that's because they were Plot Devices first, and bits of mining equipment second. Authors can handwave that as they see fit, of course, but an arbitrary range mining tool is a) not very useful for most mining and b) probably subject to some local equivalent of ITAR. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Jan 20 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ (also consider that "arbitrary range" is not the same as "rapid target acquisition, tracking and refocussing" which is what you'd want from a military weapon. If your mining equipment has that, it isn't mining equipment, it is ordnance) $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Jan 20 at 18:19
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    $\begingroup$ That's true; it probably took a few seconds to change the focus. For their intended purpose, that isn't a big deal (cutting/welding takes on the order of minutes); for an alien rushing at you with scary claws, it's more of a problem. That said, I don't believe that the adjustment was "a plot device"; the company knew how these things would be used in the field when they wrote the requisition. It was a gag that the instructor didn't understand field conditions. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Jan 20 at 18:57
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    $\begingroup$ To be clear, they still weren't used as weapons, they just didn't have fixed focus. Actually, fixed focus is incredibly stupid; it's usually easier to change the focus than to change the distance between the cutter and the material. Even "2D" laser cutters — even desktop cutters — often have adjustable focus. (Not over quite the range as the tools in Troy Rising, however, but they're also not made to be able to cut through meters of armor.) $\endgroup$ – Matthew Jan 20 at 18:59
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    $\begingroup$ 'pencil pusher with a spreadsheet' +1. Militaries have objectives and blank checks. Commercial enterprises have bottom lines. The down time of hurry up and wait isn't going to bankrupt a military. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jan 20 at 19:21

Mining tools are made to crush, destroy, pullverize SPACE stuff. Things made in space scale temperatures mixed with space pressure.

On Mohs Scale diamond is 10, the hardest mineral. Hardened steel is just 8. You design tools for that to be used days after day after day for 8-12 hours a day. While your military equipment is designed to "work" for minutes if not seconds.

Overheating a gun is something written into maintenance of it. The German MG-42 had a special "ironmaster glove" so the operator could touch, to remove barrel, and install new one. As you can imagine stopping a weapon and making it useless for few minutes is a weak point. Especially when you know that it overheats when it's used and using a weapon means you are in danger.

Yet it's the drill that can go on and on and on, while there is plenty of time and nothing that can kill you if you stop.

Like there is some need for a machine to work tirelessly without a stop to provide profit and mine profitable resources while human beings fighting a war is just an easily replaceable item. So there is almost no reason to make military equipment very durable and long lasting when the operator is the weakest link that, if killed or captured, make the equipment wasted.

  • $\begingroup$ The caveat to mining equipment is that drill bits are often liquid cooled, where weapon barrels aren't. The liquid cooling also has other functions, such as lubrication and material removal which also help the drill perform it's function. $\endgroup$ – computercarguy Jan 20 at 23:53
  • $\begingroup$ @computercarguy also worthwhile to mention that you can't easily liquid cool weapons. Not without making the design, logistics, and usage of the gun much harder. "Men, shoot these other men!" "Sorry, sir, we can't until we hook up our weapons to a water source." $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Jan 21 at 8:16
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    $\begingroup$ @VLAZ There used to be some water-cooled machine guns (e.g. M1917 Browning, Vickers or Maxim) but in the end air-cooled guns won because of the reasons you mentioned. $\endgroup$ – user31389 Jan 21 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ @VLAZ, there's some informal cooling done by weapons crews to prevent overheating. There's a scene in "We Were Soldiers" where Mel Gibson's character asked why the mortars stopped firing. A soldier said they were out of water for cooling the barrels down, so Mel unzipped and um, "improvised" a solution. Also, the M60 has a removable barrel to allow swapping to prevent overheating, which the crew carries spare barrel(s) for. It's not water cooling, but it shows that the military does actively do things to prevent overhearing weapons. $\endgroup$ – computercarguy Jan 21 at 17:02

I want to offer an alternative perspective.

The military pays for the cheapest bid offered, sometimes there is corruption involved. The equipment might under preform(think of the M16 in Vietnam) and the cost is mostly in human lives, but grunts are not that expensive to replace (unless you are thinking of starship troopers type infantry where each soldier is a highly trained specialist). so the contractor updates the design(and bills the military of course) and so on...

Now think of a private mining company, they cant afford to work in this way, if they buy the cheapest ship design and it under performs the shareholders aren't getting the returns they expect and the CEO's job is on the line, so the private sector ends up with more durable equipment that performs solidly while the army might end up with more experimental tech that can go either way

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure this line of reasoning pans out. The 737 MAX is a perfect example of how the private sector gets it just as wrong as the public does, and for the same reasons, and it's not like that's the only time something like that has happened. It's pretty common, actually. $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Jan 20 at 15:15
  • $\begingroup$ @MorrisTheCat - unless it's subsidized, the private sector does not get the benefit of (solely subsisting by) suckling the US tax payer's teat like the military does. Boeing is suffering greatly from their latest failed venture; exactly as history prescribes and this OP described. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jan 20 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Nullman My father served in the Army immediately after Vietnam. He once told me that his M-16 (which his officers said was the best one in his regiment), and it still jammed every 10 shots in optimal conditions. $\endgroup$ – Marvin the Paranoid Android Jan 21 at 0:15
  • $\begingroup$ Good answer. "Made by cheapest bidder" is a common, believable trope for gov't projects, both NASA (quoteinvestigator.com/2017/06/27/lowest-bidder) and military where it is the letter of the law (acqnotes.com/acqnote/careerfields/…). This is not the case commercially, where claims like "nobody ever got fired for buying IBM" are common instead. $\endgroup$ – Dewi Morgan Jan 21 at 7:05
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    $\begingroup$ As if enterprises don't buy from lowest bidders... of course they do. The lower your expenses, the higher the profit. Cheaper but less reliable and more expensive to run is better because it'll looks better on quarterly financial report. Whoever's CEO afterwards can worry about fallout. Private sector is full of stories of management sacking critical departments to save costs and look good to shareholders, and then jumping ship before everything goes crashing down due to lack of maintenance or mounting debt. $\endgroup$ – M i ech Jan 21 at 10:27

It's probably fair to say that most people aren't familiar with the realities of military or mining equipment, much less space military and space mining. They see on TV that tanks and humvees look bigger and bulkier than their Honda Civic, so they assume military=tougher. They see that earth moving equipment looks even bigger and bulkier, so they assume that mining=tougherer. Part of it is probably that miners themselves are depicted as tougher and rougher than even military (who are shown having varying degrees of professionalism), so it "follows" that their equipment must be likewise tougher and rougher. Whether the writers themselves are also under this misapprehension is moot, as the audiences have this expectation and the writer must cater to it. Even car manufacturers (and those of other consumer goods) exploit this trope by making products bulkier, with a camo/industrial pattern, and calling it military/industry grade. So I would say there is not much basis to it, it's almost entirely a product of marketing at this point, especially with very popular media like the ones you mention.

In reality, the durability of both mining and military equipment can vary a great deal, and the only thing we can say for sure is that both will probably be at least a little more durable than cheap consumer goods that are explicitly designed for planned obsolescence.

Agility has historically been very important in almost every military context, from swords and rifles to battleships and aircraft carriers. When somebody is trying to attack you, moving away is always a fair option, as is going around their defenses when they are trying to defend. In mining, being able to move fast is not as important, so you can expect military equipment to be faster, while mining equipment is heavier (though not necessarily stronger as that depends on type of material as well).

However, the military deals with actual intelligent hostile actors. In mining the risks can be controlled. So mining equipment does not need particularly strong armor or any active defenses. For example, an infantry helmet is probably not "weaker" than a plastic hard hat, nor would you expect to find stronger body armor on miners than troops.

Militaries develop their own doctrines, and the nature of their designs is influenced by economics, resources, technology and many other things. An imperialistic military might be driven to cut costs and use cheap equipment to maximize the profit margins of its adventurism. Or perhaps there is a strong military-industrial sector that manipulates the government into overspending on overengineered designs. Maybe in your setting, slow and lumbering spaceships have an advantage (for example, spherical energy shields that exploit the square-cube law). Or maybe the military is not militaristic at all: For example, in Star Trek the "soldiers" walk around in tights and the ships seem fragile, but they're not really meant to be dreadnoughts, but vessels of diplomacy and exploration. Maybe with humanity going to space, central governments become very weak, and militaries are just underfunded, vestigial organizations who have all but faded into irrelevance as giant asteroid mining mega-corporations raise space armies that put the East India Company to shame.

On the mining side, it is worth recognizing that the miners themselves are likely capitalist entities, as are the suppliers of their equipment. You would expect designs to tend towards whatever maximizes profit. This can be extremely durable equipment, or very flimsy, throwaway but cheap equipment. The efficiency of the market is also a factor. With large, well-governed mining corporations, the equipment manufacturers may expect serious scrutiny of their product and thus aim to produce quality. But if miners are either bloated enterprises or many small time individuals, they may be more susceptible to deceptive marketing and the equipment may be low quality as a result. This may result in equipment that is needlessly heavy without providing much durability (made from cheap but bulky materials so it can be marketed as "tough"), or equipment that is very flimsy (made to save cost on materials and marketed as "agile" and "sleek"). The nature of the mining is also a big factor - on Earth, miners must deal with moving a lot of earth. In space, you pay for every pound that goes to orbit, but since it costs about the same amount of fuel to go to any part of the asteroid belt, maybe people will favor ultralight mining rigs and beeline for whichever asteroid is the most effortless to mine.

So ultimately there are many factors influencing equipment design on either side. But as a rule, I would expect military equipment to focus more on maneuverability, but also be better protected, especially against active threats such as missiles. Additionally, the military might suppress the manufacture of mining equipment that is particularly combat-worthy, in order to maintain its own monopoly of force. Beyond that, it all depends on the particular military, and the particular mining industry.

what kind of situations and combinations of factors (besides availability: assume both are equally accessible) that can be formulated in science fiction could lead to a case where a character chooses mining tools over weapons in combat?

The obvious reason is that they are a miner and have more experience with mining equipment. It may also be that military equipment is harder to use, perhaps because the users are assumed to have extensive academy training, while mining equipment is simple because the mining companies don't want to spend money on training their staff.

Generally they may be in a unique situation where mining equipment afford a tactical advantage because it is so different from the threats the enemies usually faces, and they are not prepared for it. For example, somebody mentioned the killdozer, which was effective because police don't normally have much anti-armor capability given that most criminals don't use armored vehicles. Of course anti tank weapons could always be easily obtained, but that takes time, thus giving the killdozer the element of surprise. Maybe the action takes place somewhere deep in the atmosphere of Jupiter, where there is rarely any need for military intervention, so military ships are simply not designed to cope with the environmental hazards, whereas mining ships are.

The big problem with this is that if a piece of mining equipment was superior in combat, the military would also use it. More importantly, their enemies would use it, and the military would develop countermeasures. So if you are going to have a mining tool outperform comparable military tools, the reason should be something that is very circumstantial and one time thing, unless you intend for the user to be a brilliant tactician.


Military equipment has to be light enough to be transported - often by human power - to the unpredictable locations where it will be used for an unpredictable but probably short length of time, after which it might well be abandoned rather than transported back to a military base. Assuming, of course, that it is not destroyed by enemy action.

Mining equipment generally gets used in a known location, probably for an extended period. Thus it makes sense to make it durable.

Now the question of whether it's "tougher" really depends on how you define tough. A mining truck like the Caterpillar 797 series https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caterpillar_797 can withstand having 350+ tons of rock dumped in it day after day for years, but might easily be disabled with a few* heavy rounds to the tire sidewalls. A tank might shrug off those rounds, but be immobilized by having that much rock dumped on it.

*I admit I'm guessing here, not having one to experiment with.

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    $\begingroup$ I was going to say something along these lines. Civilian equipment rarely has to be designed to deal with an intelligent adversary actively trying to defeat it (unless you have a toddler in the house). As such, it can be better tailored to the wear and tear of other aspects of the job. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jan 21 at 0:35

In the real world, I work for a company that uses both mining equipment, and "military spec" equipment. None of the fun stuff, unfortunately, just industrial equipment that's certified to meet the military's durability/ruggedness standards. I can say that there definitely is some truth to the trope, but it's not a straightforward comparison like trope tries to make it. Each of these problem domains defines "durable" quite differently.

"Military grade" equipment might be manufactured to standards like MIL-STD-810, MIL-STD-461, or MIL-STD-167. These standards define durability requirements based on the conditions normally encountered on a battlefield or in a specialized environment like a submarine. They include things like:

  • Immunity to certain electromagnetic interference
  • Ability to operate in extreme environmental conditions (temperature, air pressure, humidity, dusty air, combustible atmosphere, etc)
  • Ability to withstand shock, explosion, vibration, and sudden acceleration (G-forces)
  • Limits on generated noise, electrical interference, power consumption, vibration, or heat

The equipment may not have to run in these conditions 24/7, but it needs to be able to handle them for a certain period of time.

Contrast this to mining equipment. The stresses imposed on mining/digging/drilling equipment are much less diverse. The equipment will primarily be exposed to mechanical stresses: impact/shock, friction, shear forces, etc. As you go deeper underground, the temperature and pressure also increase. After a mile or so down they can reach far beyond anything you'd ever see on the surface. Mining equipment spends its entire life under these sorts of stresses.

Military-grade equipment can't survive at the bottom of an oil well, the pressure and temperature can be far beyond what it's designed to handle. Similarly, there's a giant list of battlefield conditions that mining equipment isn't designed to handle. It's less that one is 'tougher' than the other, and more that each is specialized for a different set of conditions.

One use case for this trope is against heavy armor. Military ships are designed to defend against military weapons. Using a non-conventional weapon can sometimes grant an advantage. For example, a tank has a metal shell that is designed to repel most weapon fire. That metal began its life as buried ore, which was dug out, refined, and cut to size. The tools used to mine/cut the metal during manufacturing are obviously stronger than the metal, so you could use industrial tools to penetrate the hull of a tank. In the real world this is usually beyond impractical, but in sci-fi, anything goes.

Another use case you sometimes see is (as you mentioned) to defend against weapons. Military weapons are designed for attacking military targets. They're not designed to attack industrial equipment, so you may be able to use this to your advantage. A heat ray that might destroy a starfighter wouldn't even slow down a deep-core drilling ship because that puny ray is peanuts compared to what it deals with for hours each day. However, something as simple as blowing a bunch of dirt in the engine's air intake could completely neutralize the mining ship.

While there's some truth to the trope, it's really not specific to mining equipment. It's more a matter of military equipment vs. <insert random non-military equipment here>. It's the same trope that allowed Ewoks to defeat imperial walkers. One's not objectively tougher than the other, it's just that in this particular situation you're stronger against their weakness than they are against yours. Anyone who's played the Pokémon series of games also knows this type of tradeoff system well.


Since this is sci-fi, one such scenario would be where weapons are cheap, but warp drives are punishingly expensive. War requires mobility, and that mobility comes with a cost. Let's say for example that it costs 1-3 space bucks per kilo to build a laser, any laser, but a warp drive costs 1000 space bucks to be able to move that kilo of laser quickly. This would force warships to be as small as possible.

In contrast, a laser can be made huge as long as you don't need it to go FTL. So, you can either afford a 50 tonne gun ship with really top end weapon systems that can be deployed over long distances, or a 50,000 tonne slow moving ship that can cut massive asteroids in half. The mining ship will still need at least some modifications to be a viable weapon such as a proper targeting system and probably some jimmy rigging to allow the beam to focus over long ranges, but as long as you can get it to sometimes land a hit, it could in theory be quite devastating through sheer advantage of scale.

So why not just make a bunch fortress worlds protected entirely by 50,000 tonne weapon platforms?

The answer to this is planetary bombardment. Ships are small and fast. Hitting them requires relativistic weapons fired at ranges short enough to make evasive maneuvering ineffective (probably 1 light second or less). In contrast, planets are really big and predictable. If you just want to blast someone's capitol city, you can plot out shots from very far away. If a shot is fired from 60 light seconds away at 0.95C, you will not see it until it is only 3 light seconds away giving your defenses very little time to aim and fire countermeasures to stop it. If an FTL fleet finds a tightly packed ring of weapon platforms, they just bombard the planet until it surrenders.

This means actually protecting a planet requires jumping out to meet attackers with your own FTL ships to engage them well before they get into range.

Mining ships however are not warships. And no one expects them to have the targeting systems needed to be warships; so, when your FTL fleet has been defeated, and the enemy fleet moves inside of 1 light second to claim their prize, your modified mining ships can turn to shoot them to devastating effect. In this since, they remain a special tactic that is very effective when executed, but smaller FTL ships still remain the normal military doctrine.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 interesting take. Assuming the transport cost is tied to mass and not a specific property of lasers, this depends on how much mass a laser has compared to the hull, passengers, and mined ore. The mining ships would probably need FTL shuttles in order to be practical in an FTL-enabled universe, and it's possible the mining ships will process the ore to make shipping more reasonable. $\endgroup$ – Beefster Jan 20 at 23:33
  • $\begingroup$ Your scenario has unintended consequence of making Interstellar war impossible. If FTL drives are that much more expensive, then for the cost of one "50 tonne gunship" with up to date weaponry you can have entire fleet of 5000 tonne destroyers with better weapons, whose sole purpose is defending your planets, making any idea of interstellar invasion absolutely ludicrous. War between planets in same system would still be possible, but in interstellar war attackers are extremely outclassed. $\endgroup$ – M i ech Jan 21 at 10:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Beefster Space mining does not need FTL. In our own world, you can send a plane full of goods from China to the US in under a day or a freighter over the course of many months. Lower price per unit with careful planning is well worth the wait of bulk shipping. Sub-light transports could get from asteroid and nearby planet based mines in under a year following the same business model. It just makes mining outside of your own star system impractical. (Which it is if you already have asteroids thousands of times closer to you) $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Jan 21 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Miech updated my answer to account for this. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki - Reinstate Monica Jan 21 at 15:46


If the mining equipment is more expensive than the military stuff, it will be better quality.

This is not that unreasonable; mining is a multi-billion industry, vitally important to all infrastructure. A large, world spanning mining company easily has the profit to invest in the most cutting edge.

It's not like the olden days when mining was just a small underpaid army with pickaxes to extract ore; in a high tech setting to mine a mountain all you need is a dozen operators with million dollar equipment. Being a miner can be a very high paying job using uniquely developed equipment (especially depending on what you're mining - the more valuable the ore, the better the equipment).

In Guardians of the Galaxy (to take your example), they were mining space god brains. That stuff has to be worth a lot. Little wonder the company invests in some very tough and reliable machines.

Meanwhile, military suffers budget cuts. In real life, a very large portion of military equipment was designed in the 80s and never modified since. Also lot of military budget is dependent on political climate and economy - it's quite easy for soldiers to be under equipped. Guns and weapons become obsolete quickly. Plenty of nations even today have armies which are... lacking.

It's quite possible, even realistic, for very large mining companies to have more investment and development money than national militaries. The miners are more valuable than the soldiers.

If the mining has the most investment behind it, then the miners will have the better toys.

  • $\begingroup$ Not to mention Amortization. You account for the cost of the equipment wearing out ahead of time and get a tax break because of it. Amortization is a word with it's roots in the Latin "to kill slowly over time" That has a different connotation on a battlefield. $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI -Monica come Home Jan 20 at 21:48

There are lots of good answers for 1, let me post some thoughts on 2.

What could drive our sci-fi heroes to construction or mining equipment? Military equipment built by humans is designed to fight humans. If we suddenly run into an opponent that is decidedly not human-like, we will be scrambling. Rifles work great, but poking a 5.56mm hole in that zombie doesn't seem to do much. How about goo monsters? Swarms of knee high insects? We can build military gear to deal with these threats, but not overnight.

Give the players a problem and watch. It'll be great.


The best answers can be found in the basic differences between mining and military endeavors.

Mining is a for-profit venture; war is an economic black hole. Mining is a venture whose financial backers expect to see a return on investment. That investment can be significant, but a high rate of return can very easily justify higher cost of entry into a market. That typically calls for the purchase and introduction of vehicles designed to last a good long time, so you pay the cost once and get the value of the equipment for as long as it can do the job.

War, by contrast, is an environment that is specifically designed and intended by all participants to ensure as large a net loss as possible for all involved parties, because the higher the cost of the war in men, equipment and supplies, the less likely the people will have the means and willpower to continue paying it. As such, the economics of war have generally favored making things that are ultimately as expendable as possible while still getting the job done, because the expectation is that you will lose these things sooner rather than later. It's only been recently that it's become fashionable to design military materiel with an underlying mentality that the vehicle will be too expensive to risk in direct combat.

The enemy of a miner is nature; the enemy of a soldier is another soldier. Mining is generally an activity pitting man against the forces of nature; nature can be very harsh, especially in more exotic environments like deep underground or in space, but it has limits defined by physical laws. Nature also isn't intelligently trying to kill people and break stuff; its destructive capabilities are guided by physical laws dependent on the exact underlying conditions of the region in which you are working, which only coincidently put various human developments in their path. As such, anything you build specifically to survive the ambient working environment is generally going to do so, as long as you know the full range of conditions within that environment, and are capable of producing equipment that can tolerate any condition within that range.

Combat, in contrast, is a working environment specifically engineered by its intelligent human participants to destroy anything and anyone in it. As such, that environment will adapt, under intelligent influence, specifically to counter any attempt to better survive it. Build a stronger combat vehicle that can withstand multiple hits by any weapon the enemy has fielded so far, and the enemy will eventually field a more powerful weapon. The ability of humans to destroy has very rarely been stymied by the ability of humans to resist destruction, and never for very long in the grand scheme of things. The last serious technological defensive strategy that truly stymied assault tactics of the time was the medieval castle, ultimately meeting its match in the gunpowder cannon. At present, pretty much anything designed to be fielded in combat with the expectation it will survive can be fairly easily destroyed by something else in someone's arsenal.

In mining, speed is secondary to safety. In combat, speed is safety. In mining, the least risky action in the general case (outside an imminent acute hazard to life) is to do nothing. If you don't dig, the mine is less likely to kill you than if you do dig. Digging is how you make money, so you do have to dig, but acting hastily on spur of the moment decisions is how people die in mines. Measured decisions based on exacting observation, executed with care, keeps miners alive. Slower movement also allows other advantages like fuel efficiency that reduces operating costs, and mechanical advantages like better leverage against whatever the equipment is working with. Being fast and powerful costs more money, so if you don't have to be fast, you can be powerful for much less money.

In combat, doing nothing is the fastest way to die. Pretty much any weapon ever devised by humans is most effective against someone not trying to get away from it. That may sound self-evident and it probably is, but it means that combat vehicles have to balance the ability to survive the hits they can, with the ability to evade the hits they can't survive. Speed, even for larger materiel, is a primary aspect of most mil-specs, and it necessarily figures into power-to-weight considerations as well as cost. At a certain point, favoring speed requires a fundamental limitation in survivability that a mining vehicle would not have.


Military equipment has an expiration date, for all intents and purposes. If a war is expected to last for 5 years, why mass-produce weaponry that will last for 20 years?

Example 1: This is the sort of thing we see with German Panther tanks versus Russian T-34 tanks. Sure, an individual Panther was better, but the Russians better understood the temporary nature of war machines.

Example 2: If memory serves, Merlin engines in WW2 were expected to last about 3 months.

Mining equipment is expensive too, but is generally paid for by a company who cares about profit and loss. An expensive machine that wears out or breaks is a non-starter.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think it had anything to do with 'temporary nature of war'. The Russians understood that weight of numbers could prevail over superior individual performance. So did the Americans, which is why the Sherman tank was ALSO a cheap piece of crap by comparison to the Panther. $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Jan 21 at 0:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Morris The Cat: And especially when you look at WWII, there were - at least from the Allied side - new & improved designs kept coming along. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jan 21 at 5:27
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    $\begingroup$ Assuming anecdote about Merlin engine is true, it wasn't due to fleeting nature of war, but due to wear caused by stress it was placed under. Military engines combine maximum performance with minimum weight, especially planes need to reduce weight as much as possible. Thus military engines reach performances astonishing for civilian or enterprise sectors at the price of operational life and maintenance requirements not acceptable to civilian or enterprise sectors. It's similar to racing cars in a way, Formula 1 cars would use new engine each race if not for rules prohibiting it. $\endgroup$ – M i ech Jan 21 at 10:58
  • $\begingroup$ It depends on the equipment. Navel Vessels and modern jets can have long life spans and there are examples of some U.S. ships that fought in both World War II that were also involved in the Gulf War (one example is the U.S.S. Missouri aka Mighty Mo, which was the Ship where Japan's Instruments of Surrender were signed on V-J day and saw active service in Korea and the Gulf War. She was decommissioned in 1995). The U.S.S. Enterprise (CVN-65) is the third longest serving Navy ship in the USN, and was active from 1961 to 2017. $\endgroup$ – hszmv Jan 22 at 20:27
  • $\begingroup$ And don't get me started on the A-10 aircraft. They are planes that are so unmatched in their ability to not die, not even multiple attempts by Congress has killed this butt ugly plane. it first entered service in 1972 and is expected to still be in service in 2040... that's not a scheduled decommission, that's a guess at how long they can still be of use... it could go for much longer. That's a 60 year old plane that is too stubborn to die. $\endgroup$ – hszmv Jan 22 at 20:33

In a peacefull society/setting mining is still done every day. However millitary equipment has not been actually battle-tested for tens/hundreds/thousands of years and might therefore not actually work (well).


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